Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Blaine Stewart’s return to WVU is both a feel-good homecoming and savvy football move

MORGANTOWN — Blaine Stewart’s return to WVU football this offseason as tight ends coach wasn’t done to be a feel-good homecoming story. Head coach Neal Brown made it clear when the hiring was announced back in January that Stewart was hired based only on his abilities as a football coach. 

Of course, being the son of former WVU head coach Bill Stewarts helps, and it begs the question, why can’t Stewart’s return be both a feel-good story and a savvy football move? For Stewart, it sounds like it is.

“I always appreciate coming in these doors,” Stewart said during his first press conference since being hired Saturday. “The first time I came in for my interview, I got goosebumps. When I pull into this parking lot, it brings back a lot of memories, so every day I’m appreciative.”

Even before Stewart was on anyone’s radar to coach at WVU, Brown had reached out to establish a relationship with Stewart’s family and the Mountaineer program.

“For them — Coach Brown, Coleman (Barnes), Patrick (Johnston) — to welcome my mom back last summer into the building, spend some time with her and let her know, even when I wasn’t working here, that she should feel comfortable in this program, that meant the world to me,” Stewart said. “That’s why I have so much respect for this program and Coach Brown.”

It’s a true homecoming for Stewart, who grew up in Morgantown when his father was with the program in the 2000s and graduated from Morgantown High in 2013.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “My mom still lives off Stewartstown Road, she lives five minutes from here so this is home. It’s been great, she’s coming to family day and we’re going to have a nice meal with the players and make sure she feels back in the fold. 

“The olive branch that Coach Brown and the program offered to my mom and I has been really special.”

That’s the feel-good part of the story, the football part of it is about maximizing the production of a tight end room that had been under-utilized during Brown’s first four seasons. Stewart spend the last five seasons as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he worked with wide receivers and tight ends.

“Our biggest thing is just finding out a way to help this offense be successful,” Stewart said. “If it’s run blocking, pass protection, making plays down the field, we want to have our hand in all three phases in that. 

“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t have a balanced attack, you don’t have the ability to truly reach your highest level as an offense. The more we can do with our tight ends, the more we can do as an offense with spacing guys out and going heavy with our big packages running the ball. I think that all compounds into a pretty dynamic offense.”

During Brown’s first four seasons as head coach, West Virginia tight ends have combined for only 491 yards and just two touchdowns on 63 receptions. Season-highs for the tight ends came in 2020, when the group caught 20 passes for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns. On Monday, Brown said that needs to change in 2023.

“I think the main point for them is getting them involved in the pass game,” Brown said. “I’m excited about Kole Taylor. Victor (Wikstrom) and Will Dixon are two that we really need to push and get more out of.”

Taylor, a transfer from LSU, is the most intriguing member of the room this offseason. His meager career total of 17 receptions for 159 yards and one touchdown while at LSU far surpasses WVU’s current leader, Treylan Davis, who has five career receptions for 51 yards.

WVU tight end Kole Taylor catches a pass during spring practice on Thursday. (Ron Rittenhouse/The Dominion Post)

“I think he brings experience,” Stewart said of Taylor. “He’s played major college football, he’s played in atmospheres that we’re going to play in this fall and I think he brings a mindset of professionalism…I think the biggest thing he adds is a mindset that I’m excited about.”

Stewart said the biggest thing for him this spring is developing the tight ends to fill different roles on the offense. Taylor and underclassmen Wikstrom and Dixon profile as pass-catchers while guys like Davis, Carson Everhart and Luke Hamilton figure to be better blockers.

“I’m excited about the room because I think we have a bunch of different roles to be found,” Stewart said. “I think we’ve got guys with unique skill sets that can help the offense.”

The other defining characteristic of the tight end group is its youth. Aside from Taylor’s time at LSU and Davis being used as the second tight end last season, the rest have little to no in-game experience.

“They’re young guys, guys who really haven’t had the opportunity yet so we’re really trying to put them in a spot this spring to catapult themselves into finding a role this fall,” Stewart said. “Our goal is to have numerous body types who can do numerous things and help this offense.”

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